Posted on February 25, 2019

Foreign-Educated Immigrants Are Less Skilled Than U.S. Degree Holders

Jason Richwine, Center for Immigration Studies, February 24, 2019


While the percentage of immigrants who arrive with a college or advanced degree has risen over the past decade, the extent to which foreign education translates into useful skills here in the United States is an open question. Based on English-language tests of literacy, numeracy, and computer operations administered by the Program for International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC), this report finds that, among test-takers with at least a college education, U.S.-degree holders out-score foreign-educated immigrants by a wide margin.

For example, among those with at least a college degree, native-born Americans score at the 74th percentile on literacy, while U.S.-educated immigrants score at the 66th percentile, and foreign-educated immigrants score at just the 42nd percentile. Policy-makers should therefore be cautious in treating foreign degrees as evidence of “high-skill” immigration.

Other key points:

  • Among immigrants in the United States whose highest degree is either a bachelor’s (“college”) or a master’s or Ph.D. (“advanced”), about 40 percent received their highest degree in a foreign country — meaning they are “foreign-educated”.
  • On both literacy and computer operations, foreign-educated immigrants with a college or advanced degree perform so poorly that they score at the level of natives who have only a high school diploma.
  • On numeracy, foreign-educated immigrants with a college or advanced degree perform closer to the level of natives who have some college education, but not a bachelor’s.
  • Despite their reputation for specializing in STEM fields, about one in six foreign-degree holders score “below basic” in numeracy.
  • The skill gap between foreign and U.S. degree holders persists even among immigrants who have had at least five years in the United States to learn English.
  • A skill-selective immigration system could incorporate direct testing of applicants rather than rely on their educational attainment alone.


Although low-skill immigration to the United States continues from places such as Central America and the Caribbean, the average education level of immigrants has been rising. Between 2007 and 2017, the share of recent working-age immigrants with a bachelor’s degree rose from 34 percent to 49 percent. Over the same period, the share without a high school diploma declined from 34 percent to 16 percent.1 While improving education levels are a positive development, questions remain as to how meaningful the increase is. An April 2018 report from the Center for Immigration Studies found that employment, income, poverty, and welfare use have not improved among recent immigrants as much as their rising education level would predict. For example, between 2007 and 2017 Medicaid use rose more steeply among recent working-age immigrants (6 percent to 17 percent) than among working-age natives (7 percent to 14 percent).2

Furthermore, a July report from the Center quantified “occupational mismatch” among highly educated legal immigrants, finding that 20 percent of legal immigrants with a college degree have a low-skill occupation, vs. just 7 percent of natives with the same paper credential.3 That report suggested various reasons why highly educated immigrants have less success than natives in the U.S. labor market. For example, immigrants may be unfamiliar with regulations, networking, and licensing requirements, while others may arrive on temporary visas that restrict their job options. Another possibility, however, is that highly educated immigrants are simply less skilled than their native counterparts, especially when it comes to performing tasks that require English ability. If so, the rise in “skilled” immigration, as measured by educational attainment, may be overstated.

This report finds that foreign-educated immigrants perform substantially worse than U.S. degree holders on English-language tests of literacy, numeracy, and computer operations. The gaps are in some cases so large that natives with only a high school diploma out-score immigrants with a foreign college degree.


[Editor’s Note: The original story, which is available both as an HTML and as a PDF document, is heavily detailed with definitions, discussion of methodology, charts, and tables.]